Down but not out

Avispa Fukuoka and Shonan Bellmare are on their way back to J2, but just because the clubs are dropping down a division it doesn’t necessarily mean they have to dispense with the services of their coaches… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, 29th September, 2016

The fates of Avispa Fukuoka and Shonan Bellmare look sealed for this season, with both sides cut adrift at the foot of the table and all-but out of time to save their top-flight status.

Avispa’s victory when the two came head to head a fortnight ago moved them level on points with Shonan and left both with an outside chance of survival, but the pair failed to win this past weekend – with Avispa losing 4-1 at home to Vissel Kobe and Shonan drawing 0-0 away to Jubilo Iwata – meaning they sit eight and seven points from safety, respectively, with only 12 to play for. Barring a miracle they will be back in J2 next season.

Once that is confirmed it will be interesting to see what happens to their coaches. Avispa’s Masami Ihara and Shonan’s Cho Kwi-jae have both experienced difficult seasons but are two talented young managers and – assuming that both want to stay on, they may well have offers elsewhere – it would be a shame if their clubs were to dispense of their services.

Ihara is in his first job as head coach but spent five years earning his stripes on the coaching staff at Kashiwa Reysol, helping them to back to back J1 and J2 titles in 2010 and 2011 while working under Nelsinho, and has showed potential in his nearly two years as the main man at Avispa.

Despite starting his maiden season in J2 with three straight defeats, the former Japan captain guided Avispa to an end of season surge that saw them unbeaten in 12 games and winning their last eight matches before dramatically sealing promotion to J1 with an 87th minute goal in the play off final against Cerezo Osaka.

Things, predictably, have been less straightforward in the top flight, with Avispa picking up just four wins all season courtesy of doubles over Shonan and FC Tokyo. The table may not make for pretty reading, but performances on the pitch haven’t been as bad as the stats suggest, and despite losing 19 times 11 of them have come by just a single goal.

Although this past weekend saw them well beaten by Vissel, on the whole Avispa have been well organised and difficult to break down, and the overriding issue has been a lack of top quality at each end of the pitch.

“Of course there are many different factors, but I think being able to control games – how you ensure you win games that you should win – is key,” Ihara said after the Shonan match, when discussing what separates the teams that get relegated from those that avoid the drop.

Football Channel, Thursday 29th September, 2016

“We have had many games where we have played well but dropped points. There was a succession of games where we were caught off guard within a second and lost, preventing us from picking up points. Really strong teams don’t allow any of those chances, every single player knows exactly what is needed to win games and control them for the full 90 minutes.”

Whereas Avispa’s season has been defined by dogged organisation and a refusal to go down without a fight, Shonan have continued to play with the gunslinging abandon that saw them finish in a lofty 8th place in the overall table on their return to J1 last year.

The side have picked up rousing draws with big boys Kawasaki Frontale (4-4), Gamba Osaka (3-3), and Sanfrecce Hiroshima (2-2) with their positive attacking approach this year, but having lost a trio of players capable of deciding games in their favour in the form of Yota Akimoto, Wataru Endo, and Ryota Nagaki ahead of this campaign they have struggled to come out on top in enough matches to avoid another plunge back down to J2.

Despite the results not arriving, however, Cho doesn’t think a team’s position in the table should affect their style. “I’ve only worked as a coach for five years and managed to avoid relegation once so I don’t know if I can give an informed answer or not, but personally I think that pursuing what you believe in as the club’s philosophy and carrying it out until the end is the key ingredient for a team to look ahead and avoid relegation,” he said after the loss to Avispa.

“Of course you can tweak the system, but you have to stick to what you have, to take care of the original DNA – which for us is to run more than the opponent, to play attacking football, and to aim for the goal. Today again we weren’t able to get the three points, but I firmly believe that teams who can do this without giving up until the end – this year, next year, in three years, 10 years – achieve improvement. I’m somebody who demands results and development, and I want to do so even in this kind of situation.”

Whether Cho or Ihara will get the chance to stick around at their current clubs for another year – or three, or 10 – remains to be seen, but based on their efforts this season it would be a shame if they weren’t given a little longer to bring their respective projects closer to fruition.


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